Country Careers: An Interview with Mike Jennings
"What we’ve got used to is all the greedy businesses, mostly corporates, and they should be named as “anti-social”. Then, we’re really pinning down what’s wrong in the world"
At first glance, opportunities for young people in rural England seem few and far between. The rise of an urban-obsessed culture and ever-increasing tendency for young adults to saddle themselves with £40,000 of debt in order to go to university has meant that successful and fulfilling careers in the countryside are largely ignored by most forms of media.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have been raised on a working farm or have inherited a skillset from your family, what can young people in rural areas do to make money and build their career, without following the crowd and leaving the countryside to join the lonely wage slaves in the city?
You’d be surprised at how many opportunities are available and how many well-paying jobs there are, particularly in Oxfordshire. We spoke to businessman and local legend Mike Jennings about the rural economy and his perspective on business.
Your more recent pursuits have been focussed on helping small businesses in Oxfordshire. What is it that you do differently in terms of your attitude to business?
As a summary, it’s an understanding that business is not primarily about maximising profit. Business is primarily about building relationships, and relationships are based on trust. You have to trust first, and that’s difficult because it puts you in a weak or vulnerable position because someone can abuse that trust, but when you get it right it works really well. My philosophy for the company, and for all companies, is that it’s possible and better to run a business where you focus on purpose and values, and if you do those right, the outcome is that you’ll make profit. Profit is an outcome, not an objective, in other words.
Do you feel that if you aim for building great relationships, you’ll be in a better place to make profit anyway?
Yes, that’s what I’m saying. These relationships are with your team first and foremost, as well as your customers, your suppliers, and the outside community, what the Companies Act would call your stakeholders. Shareholders don’t come into it except in the sense that they share in the profit that comes out of the end. It’s more long-term business building than short-term. What I’m saying is the purpose of your business is the “why”, and your values are the “how”. Your values are the set of behaviours that are naturally within you, and your job as a leader is to communicate these to your people. Things like courtesy, fairness, openness and honesty, those are ours.
Why do you think that sort of attitude is so rare in the business world? Why do you think that most business leaders don’t see it how you see it?
Because we are led to believe throughout our lives that business is based on the desire or need to maximise profit. When you get to the level of the corporates, the large businesses, you have a separation of ownership and control. When the directors aren’t involved in the running of the business, their view will always be to maximise return for shareholders, who set their salary. There will be a natural tendency to maximise short-term profit when there is a separation of ownership and control.
What we have to remember though, is that 95% of businesses in the UK are owner-managed. In that case, the owner has a choice: Do you want to make a load of money just for yourself, or do you want to enjoy the journey of being in business? Whenever I talk to people about this, they might say “Well, I’m in business to make money”, but when you ask a little more, you start to get the real reason why people want to run a business, and that’s independence. It’s the desire to determine for yourself what you do in a day, and in a life, and not have anyone else direct that.
Absolutely. I did a course a few years ago which put me off the world of business because of its relentless focus on corporate language and dry specifics, and it’s only since I’ve been personally involved in small businesses that I’ve realised that directing a company is a creative endeavour in itself.
Sure. Fulfilment in life doesn’t come from making money, it comes from helping others. Where your purpose in business is to do something of value to the community, that is where you get the most excitement. I think we shouldn’t use the term “social enterprise”, and instead we should use “anti-social enterprise”, because enterprises should be social by nature. What we’ve got used to is all the greedy businesses, mostly corporates, and they should be named as “anti-social”. Then, we’re really pinning down what’s wrong in the world.
What do you think are main challenges facing businesses in Oxfordshire at the moment?
The main barrier to business is fear. Most people will tell you that the main barriers to business are planning, lack of funding, lack of government support, that kind of stuff. Those are just blips. They’re minor irritations that most businesspeople will just jump over. The real problem is the business owner’s own fear.
Fear of failure? Fear of commitment?
There’s fear of failure, fear of what other people think of you, and fear of the unknown. They’re the three main fears in life. All three of those have to be faced by people who run their own business. People who own businesses are inherently prepared to take risks, and most of them take their first big risk when they leave their job to start their business. I talked to someone only yesterday who did exactly that, and two years later he loves it. He makes a bit more money than he was when he was employed, but what he’s loving is that he’s not being controlled by anyone else anymore.
I run Oxford Business Mentors, and one of the things we focus on is the empathetic similarity between the mentor and the client. All my mentors have set up and run their own businesses, so they understand the fear, and know that fear is very similar to excitement. The two are very close, and you can move between one and the other very rapidly. It’s horrible but lovely all at the same time, and that’s why people love being in business. To answer your question, the barriers are within yourself, and are to do with self-doubt, and that’s why mentoring is so important.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and your early years as a businessman?
I became a bit of a reluctant entrepreneur, and I don’t really like the term. I drifted into it by accident. My family were poultry farmers, and all I knew is that I didn’t want to do that. I drifted into university and then into accountancy, and didn’t like it. My father had started converting buildings for business use and he needed the help of someone with financial experience, so he asked me to work for him part-time, which then became full-time. 20 years ago he died suddenly, so I was just thrust into running the business. I started running it in the same way that I thought everyone else ran a business, trying to be tough and trying to make sure that I was making more and more turnover and profit, and stressing myself out.
After 10 years of that, I began to realise that it was going against the grain of who I really am. I love, truly love, listening to my tenants and watching their journey as they evolve. Businesses start quite small with us, and we enable them to grow. Do they need more space? We’ll give them more space. We make it easy for them, and take away their fears. One of the most powerful things you can do with your customer is understand their fear and try and take it away.
Because your background is in the countryside, what sort of advice would you give to someone who wants to grow a business but doesn’t want to leave the rural community and move to a city?
It depends so much on the person. I’d say that there’s a strong link between community and the environment. I love the fact that people can work in the countryside, I love the fact that people can work from home. 20 years ago I saw the dormitorisation of the villages in Oxfordshire, where people would work in London but live in Oxfordshire, and it was killing the villages because no one was using the local services.
Now what’s happening is that every village has dozens of people running businesses from home and I really applaud that. The communications revolution has allowed that to happen, which is why it’s so frustrating that our government and public sector can’t get their arses into gear to sort out the broadband issues in rural areas. It should have been 1GB broadband, across the board, for everybody. Just put it in. Don’t bother with HS2 and stuff like that, but enable people to communicate with each other effectively. Your community, or your Tribe as Seth Godin would call it, is where your heart is and it is where you could decide to base your business. That is where you can get the most support, and that is where you can make the biggest contribution.
It’s disheartening how the needs of the rural community are ignored so much in government.
The people in the rural areas will help themselves, given the opportunity. What stifles community is when you’ve got people who live in London whose house prices go up and up and up, who then decide to have a country residence, and come and live there at the weekends or commute every day. That causes house price inflation in rural areas and local people can’t afford them. As soon as you have local people working locally, then they get involved in the local area and that’s how community is formed.
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